‘Wicked decision’: Liberal Jews slam Israel for freezing mixed-gender Western Wall prayer space plan

‘Wicked decision’: Liberal Jews slam Israel for freezing mixed-gender Western Wall prayer space plan
Liberal Jews have slammed the Israeli government for freezing a plan to establish a mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall, with one group canceling a planned gala event with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, a non-profit group that works with the Israeli government to serve Jewish communities across the globe, announced its cancelation of the planned dinner event earlier on Monday.

“In light of yesterday’s decisions by the Government of Israel, the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency will be changing its entire agenda for the remaining two days of its meetings in Jerusalem, in order to address the ramifications of these decisions. The scheduled dinner with the participation of the Prime Minister has been cancelled,” it said in a statement, as quoted by The Jerusalem Post.

The freezing of the plan represents a U-turn for the government, which approved a blueprint for a US$9 million project to establish a mixed-gender prayer space in January 2016.

The Western Wall (also called the Wailing Wall), the holiest site where Jews can pray, is currently divided into men’s and women’s prayer spaces.

Approval of the plan was reached following years of negotiations between the Israeli government and liberal Israeli and American Jews. It was seen as a major step towards promoting religious pluralism in Israel.

However, the move was quickly criticized by ultra-Orthodox citizens and government leaders, and no progress was made towards establishing the mixed-gender prayer space.

Realizing the plan was being stalled by the government, the Reform and Conservative movements, along with the Jewish feminist group Women of the Wall, petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to act.

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Sunday was the deadline for the government to officially respond to the petition. The government instead decided to indefinitely freeze the plan.

The action has been met with anger and disappointment by liberal Jews.

“Five years ago, the prime minister asked me to lead a joint effort to bring about a workable formula that would transform the Western Wall into – in his own words – ‘one wall for one people,’” the Jewish Agency’s Natan Sharansky said, adding that an agreement was reached after four years of “intensive negotiations.”

“Today’s decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult...” he added, as quoted by The Jerusalem Post.

Those words were echoed by the chair of the Women of the Wall group, which was partly behind the government petition.

“I’m outraged by this government decision. I think it shows cowardice. For two years we negotiated in good faith with the government,” said Anat Hoffman, as quoted by AP. “And then today they decide that it is null and void, that they're not going to implement it, that equality is out the window.”

The head of the Conservative movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily that trusting the government was a “mistake.”

“We made a mistake. We believed the government, we believed the prime minister, we believed that we needed at last to end this squabbling among ourselves over the Western Wall, and we agreed to a compromise arrangement,” he wrote.

“But the Cabinet’s decision last night — a cynical, even wicked decision — took this historic agreement and threw it in the faces of millions of Jews around the world.”

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Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox community has praised the decision.

Arieh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said he was pleased the government froze the plan which would have harmed the “sanctity of the site.”

“Preserving the status quo of the Western Wall reflects the will of most of the people,” he said. “There is no room there for destructive factions whose only purpose is to desecrate the site.”

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox establishment sees itself as responsible for maintaining Jewish traditions, and strictly govern Jewish practices in Israel including weddings, divorces, and burials. It serves as a frequent roadblock to the agenda of more liberal Jews trying to modernize certain practices.